An Interview With Simon Baron-Cohen On Zero-Empathy, Autism, And Accountability
    By Kim Wombles | June 4th 2011 07:05 AM | 64 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Simon Baron-Cohen "sat down with me" this week via email and graciously took the time to answer my questions stemming from my review of  his new book, The Science of Evil, that appeared on my blogs last week. What follows is a response that is every bit as thorough as my original review; between the two (and I recommend you read both as a complete piece), there's 15 single spaced pages of material. I thoroughly enjoyed this opportunity and I think readers will, too. There's even dueling databases, which I absolutely loved, below!

    My questions are in italics; SBC's in regular font.

    How would you outline the major sections in your book and how do you see these sections meshing together into a cohesive narrative?

    The key theme in my book is that when people commit acts of cruelty, a specific circuit in the brain ("the empathy circuit") goes down. It can go down temporarily (for example, when we are stressed) or in a more enduring way. For some people, this empathy circuit never developed in the first place, either for reasons of environmental neglect and/or for genetic reasons. But whatever the reason this circuit in the brain did not develop in the usual way, or is not functioning in the usual way, it is the very same circuit that is involved. I argue that when we try to explain acts of human cruelty, there is no scientific value in the term 'evil' but there is scientific value in using the term 'empathy erosion'.

    The related theme is that the functioning of the empathy circuit determines how much empathy a person has, and that empathy is "normally distributed" in the population: from zero degrees at the extreme low end through to six degrees at the extreme high end. Most of us are somewhere in the middle, but the book explores the different routes that can lead a person to end up at zero degrees of empathy. In particular, there are some medical/psychiatric conditions that cause this outcome and most are negative (Zero Negative). These include the personality disorders, such as psychopaths and people with Borderline Personality Disorder.

    But one is surprisingly positive (autism spectrum conditions) because although they struggle with empathy, they do so because they have a mind that is exquisitely tuned to spot patterns (rules) in the world. I call this "systemizing", and in people with autism or Asperger Syndrome the "systemizing mechanism" is tuned to an extremely high degree. This can have remarkable advantages when trying to figure out how a system works (hence Zero Positive), but leads to disability when applied to the world of people and emotions, because people and emotions are hard (if not impossible) to systemize.

    Do you think readers will potentially get to the part about zero empathy positive and get confused as to why you've placed the ASDs in a book titled The Science of Evil?

    I make it crystal clear in the book that whilst acts of cruelty always entail zero degrees of empathy, it is not a symmetric relationship: zero degrees of empathy does not necessarily lead to acts of cruelty. In the case of people with autism spectrum conditions, their low empathy usually leads them to avoid other people because they find other people confusing. Their low empathy doesn't lead them to commit acts of cruelty any more than anyone else in the population, but it does often lead them to feel socially isolated, with the added risk of depression.

    As a scientist, setting out to examine the nature of empathy, it would be wrong to leave autism out of the discussion. It is of course highly sensitive to look at autism side by side with personality disorders like psychopathy, but they both involve difficulties with (different components of) empathy. The options are either to dodge the issue, or to tackle it head on. I opted for the latter. Most books or journal articles look at one condition (e.g., autism) without the other (e.g., psychopaths) but this begs the question of the relationship between the two.

    The key difference seems to be that in psychopaths the 'cognitive' component of empathy is intact but the 'affective' component is not. In autism, both components may be impaired, or just the cognitive component. But their strong systemizing leads them, through powerful logic, to develop a moral code based on 'fairness' and 'justice'. Psychopaths lack the moral compass that most people develop using their empathy, and lack the moral compass that people with autism develop using their strong systemizing. People with autism spectrum conditions often end up as 'super-moral', developing a set of rules they expect people to live up to consistently (such as honesty), arriving at the conclusion that one should 'treat others as you would have others treat you' because it is the most logical approach.

    At the end of your book, you argue that psychology has ignored empathy over its history, but there's plenty of evidence to suggest that this is not true; database searches relating to psychology produce over 23,000 journal articles on empathy. Daniel Goleman has spent two decades promoting social and emotional intelligences, which both involve empathy. It seems fair to say that empathy has been looked at in great detail, although the connection between empathy erosion and evil may not have been. Is that the distinction you're trying to make?

    The best source of scientific studies is the database PubMed and if you type in the word "empathy" into PubMed you get 12,647 hits (separate peer-reviewed scientific journal articles). It is true that the oldest of these was published in 1947, but the point I make in my book is that psychology as a science is at least 100 years old, and for much of the first half of its existence psychology was not studying empathy. In the years 1952-1954, for example, there were only 4 scientific papers published on empathy per year. Compare this with modern neuroscience: there have been 342 scientific papers published on empathy in 2011 alone, and we are only 5 months into the year! I am delighted that over the last 5-10 years the neuroscience of empathy has really taken off, and that science is no longer ignoring such a fundamentally important part of the human mind and brain. Part of the purpose in writing this book was to bring together the research, to communicate to a wider public what science has been discovering about the nature of empathy, and how it can go wrong.

    The lack of empathy and psychopathy has been examined, as well (Soderstrom, 2003). Do you feel that empathy in the detail you are examining it and your hypothesis that it is empathy erosion to blame for cruelty is what has been ignored?

    You are right that there are many good books and scientific articles on psychopathy and empathy. An excellent book for example is by James Blair at NIH. What’s new about my book is that it broadens the focus to look at a range of psychiatric conditions, not just psychopaths, in whom empathy is below average. Equally, as you point out, it is making the more general point that cruelty, whether by psychopaths or by any of us, involves empathy erosion.

    The online autism community is very vocal (and fairly well in agreement, considering the wide divides usually tearing it apart) that you are incorrect in your belief that autistic people lack empathy (and theory of mind). How do you respond to that charge and what evidence do you have that people with ASDs have zero empathy?

    The online autism community is just one sector of the autistic population: namely, those with at least average intelligence, who can therefore use the internet. They are sometimes referred to as having “high-functioning autism” or Asperger Syndrome. This sector of the autistic population may not havezero degrees of empathy but they do tend to have below average levels of empathy on different measures that research have used. These include (but are not restricted to) the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ Test, or the Empathy Quotient (EQ).

    Many people with autism in the remainder of the spectrum may well haveabsolutely zero degrees of empathy, as shown in failing the False Belief Test (theory of mind) that even a typical 4 year old child can pass, but which is failed by many children with autism who have a mental age above 4 years old. Many may not even show “joint attention” that even a typical 18 month old toddler can show, such as spontaneously following another person’s gaze. A meta-analysis review of false belief studies by Francesca Happe  in 1995 found that most children with autism take until the age of 11 years old to pass this test, which is a 7 year delay (see attached graph and the recent paper by Senju, 2011). Even among children with Asperger Syndrome or high functioning autism, delays in “social sensitivity” (such as detecting faux pas) are seen, despite their average or above average IQ.

    Thus, among scientists and clinicians there is near universal agreement that autism spectrum conditions are characterized by delays and disabilities in the cognitive component of empathy (theory of mind). These difficulties are only revealed when age-appropriate and mental-age appropriate tests are used, and sometimes required more subtle tests (so-called “advanced” theory of mind tests).

    So why might people with autism in the online community challenge this view? One possibility is that it is in the nature of empathy that people who are low in empathy are often the last people to be aware of it. This is because empathy goes hand-in-hand with self-awareness, or imagining how others see you, and it is in this very area that people with autism struggle.  A better source of information for whether someone with autism has an empathy disability might therefore be a third party, such as a teacher or parent or independent observer. When it comes to empathy, self-report is highly unreliable. For this reason, I would always advise that results from the questionnaires like the EQ (the self-report version) should be corroborated by other independent sources of evidence. An analogy might be with colour blindness. Many people who are colour blind are the last people to know about it, until they are given a test of it by an optician or vision scientist. They simply assumed that they were seeing the same colours as everyone else.

    This is not to say that all people with autism have zero degrees of empathy, since being below average on a cognitive test of empathy does not equate to scoring zero. It may simply mean scoring statistically below the average in the general population. Nor does it mean that people with autism are necessarily below average on other components of empathy, though some may be.

    In my experience whilst even adults with Asperger Syndrome may have difficulties figuring out why someone else’s remark was considered funny, or why their own remark was considered rude, or may judge others as liars when they simply are inconsistent in not doing what they said they would do, they may nevertheless have a highly developed emotional empathy, caring about how someone feels and not wanting to hurt them. If they do hurt them it is often unintentional and they feel mortified when it is pointed out, and want to rectify this. In this respect, they do have some of the components of empathy.

    Many people with autism also form very strong emotional relationships with their pets, worrying about their welfare, and find that whilst they struggle to ‘read’ human behaviour and human intentions, they can read the arguably more predictable behaviour of a pet. Finally, as mentioned earlier, the difficulties with the cognitive element of empathy by no means leave people with autism devoid of a moral code, and their strong systemizing can mean that they often end up with a more principled moral code than many people without autism.

    Would you restrict your diagnosing to only those who scored at zero or do you accept the idea that it's at least possible that many autistic people do indeed have both cognitive and affective empathy (although perhaps impaired), and that their social and communication deficits cause problems in engaging in the socially appropriate display of empathy?

    I’m glad you asked this question as it clears up a common misunderstanding, namely that people with autism all have zero degrees of empathy. As you rightly state, empathy is on a continuum and the theory is that people on the autistic spectrum are simply lower down this spectrum than people in the general population. But within the autistic population there is a spectrum of individual differences. Your second point is also correct, that these empathy difficulties (however mild) give rise to the problems in socially appropriate behaviour and in maintaining relationships.

    Some researchers suggest that autistics may not be impaired in emotional empathy (Krahn & Fenton, 2009; Smith, 2009). How do you account for the possibility that emotional or affective empathy might not be impaired in autistics?

    This has already been covered earlier, and this may be true of some people with autism. The topic of ‘emotional empathy’ requires more research as it is hard to measure, but vitally important. Note that the Smith paper you cite was the subject of a scientific debate within the same journal, since the evidence for intact affective empathy in autism is mixed.

    Your definition of empathy is fairly complex and one that is not widely accepted in the masses; most people think of empathy as being able to understand another person's emotional state. Your definition is more robust and involves more parts: you delineate a cognitive aspect, an emotional aspect, and then, perhaps most importantly, the engaging in socially appropriate behavior relating to those cognitive and affective components. I think this is going to be hard for most lay readers to keep in their minds as they read your work, and that because of the differences between your definition of empathy and the lay definition, that your book will be misunderstood. What would you say to readers who are defining empathy differently?

    I think we should not underestimate the average reader of popular science books. My definition of empathy is not that complex, and readers can keep in mind the idea that a single word (empathy) might be an umbrella term for a number of different component processes. In that respect, it is not much different to other psychological terms. For example, the term ‘language’ covers a number of different sub-systems (syntax, semantics, pragmatics, lexicon) as does the term ‘memory’ (long-term, short-term, episodic, semantic). So I don’t worry about the ability of the reader to hold my definition of empathy in mind. But you are right that different theorists may have different definitions of empathy. I don’t suggest mine is the only one, but it is one I find useful.

    Already I have read people on blogs and in comments on reviews argue that you've got it wrong in regards to psychopaths; psychopaths understand that their actions cause harm, and therefore their empathy (the ability to infer other people's emotional states) is intact. How would you rebut this tendency for readers to use another definition for empathy when discussing your work? Did you consider an alternative word or concept instead of empathy in order to prevent these kinds of miscommunications?

    From your précis of the blogs it sounds as if some of the people on blogs may not have read my book since I specifically state that psychopaths areintact in the cognitive component of empathy (the ability to infer other’s mental states, including their emotional states). So there may be nothing to rebut! I suspect the miscommunication may stem not from the word ‘empathy’, but from not reading the book.

    In your "Table 1 Distinct Profiles of Empathy Disorders," you contend that classic autism has morality negative while Asperger Syndrome has morality positive but other than your foray into systemizing compensating for deficiencies in empathy, you offer no evidence or explanation for this categorization of one ASD as moral and another as not moral. The table doesn't appear to be fully fleshed out; systemizing is only noted on the ASDs, morality negative is checked for only psychopaths and classic autism. Is this table presented accurately and what evidence do you have for the categorizations, specifically relating to morality?

    This is a good observation. The claim that within classic autism one finds individuals who lack understanding of right and wrong finds evidence from the field of learning difficulties (or below average IQ). As I hope I make clear, classic autism has a strong association with learning difficulties. The legal system has long recognized that a person with learning difficulties may not be able to stand trial if they cannot understand the moral distinction between right and wrong. Within classic autism we encounter individuals who may have very limited understanding, because of their low IQ and limited or even non-existent language. Table 1 in the book is intended to stimulate future research where such differences between conditions can be tested further.

    You note that all of the types of zero empathy have negative affective empathy, but again this seems to ignore research that shows affective empathy is not deficient in autism. Is there a difference in how you're defining the affective component? Would you restrict autism diagnoses to those who show impairments in all components of empathy then?

    This was discussed earlier and I agree that the evidence for an affective empathy deficit in autism is inconsistent and requires further research. Certainly the diagnosis of autism does not require the individual to have a deficit in affective empathy.

    You ask whether people with zero empathy disorders should be held criminally responsible for crimes and imprisoned. There is little doubt that people with the zero empathy negative disorders you've proposed are competent to understand when their actions violate a law. Do you think that psychopaths, narcissists, and others who violate the law, engage in abusive or violent behaviors aren't legally responsible for their actions?

    For the criminal justice system to work, it is vital to hold onto the notion of people being responsible for their actions. We ask the defendant to plead guilty or not guilty. I am not trying to upturn this principle of the legal system as I think it provides a valuable method for society to decide how to deal with someone who has broken a law.

    Rather, I simply bring out into the open the implication that stems from the notion that, if someone who is Zero Negative is violent or abusive because of how the empathy circuit in their brain currently functions, or because of the empathy circuit in their brain did not develop in the usual way, then perhaps we should see such behaviour not as a product of individual choice or responsibility, but as a product of the person’s neurology.

    We do not hold someone with schizophrenia responsible for having a hallucination, just as we don’t hold someone with diabetes responsible for their increased thirst. In the case of the person with diabetes, we ‘blame’ the person’s low levels of insulin, or the person’s cells for not responding normally to insulin. That is, we recognize the biomedical causes of the behaviour. Equally, if someone’s behaviour is the result of their low empathy, which itself stems from the underactivity of the brain’s empathy circuit, and which ultimately is the result of their genetic make-up and/or their early experience, in what sense is the ‘person’ responsible?

    But these are complex medico-ethical issues. I would argue we need to keep our socio-legal framework since it serves many valuable functions, including recognizing the victim or their family want to see justice done; but that those with low empathy who end up in the criminal justice system also warrant our compassion, and may even warrant treatment within the health service.

    What potential do you see for people to take advantage of this idea that they have a neurological impairment resulting in empathy erosion? Do you think these individuals who engage in acts that demonstrate diminished empathy should be able to play the disability card?

    If someone has a disability, they deserve society’s support. Period. The phrase “play the disability card” implies that some people will exploit their disability or will claim they have a disability when they do not. I find this idea distasteful on many levels. Where there is doubt as to whether someone has a disability, the legal system already has provision to call in experts to assess an individual. If such experts agree, then I think we owe it to people with disabilities to offer them the support and help they need. If their disability is neurological and has resulted in empathy erosion, then appropriate help and support should be available. The history of disability is that people have had to fight to have their needs recognized, and this new class of disability may just be the latest example in a long line.

    (Continued email conversation with SBC) I have no problem conceding that some individuals on the spectrum, especially those who have an intellectual disability sufficiently severe, will have difficulty with right and wrong; prison is not the best place for them and hopefully society will recognize and place them appropriately into settings where they will be safe and have as much autonomy as possible with reduced chances of harming others.  However, your other zero empathy/low empathy folks like the zero-negatives don't have that excuse and they are specifically who I was thinking of, along with some Asperger's individuals who break what they know to be the law. I'm thinking specifically of  psychopaths and borderlines; they're aware of societal laws and rules but don't care. To excuse their behavior because they don't care seems to me to be while perhaps technically accurate (i.e., if they'd cared, they wouldn't have committed the act) lets a whole lot of people off the hook. I think you're absolutely spot-on when you say that cruel behavior arises out of empathy erosion: people just don't care. But they're still accountable for their actions and should be, if their reasoning centers are still intact. Diabetics in an  low or  high (and I've had both) have executive functioning malfunctions that cause aggressive behavior, but it's immediate, unpremeditated lashing out, not the planned, intentional behavior that psychopaths engage in. One deserves consideration of the exonerating circumstances and the other not so much.

    I asked about people trying to take advantage of  these labels and use them as a get-out-of-jail-free card. I was thinking particularly of psychopaths when I wrote that question, although I didn't clarify that. Are you saying that you feel psychopaths specifically wouldn't game the system and play the disability card to get out of being held accountable? 

    I think compassion for borderlines, sociopaths, psychopaths, and narcissists is going to be a hard case to sell. The havoc they wreak is so great that, as you say, there's nothing positive to be said for them (the conditions)*. And I suspect few other than potentially the borderlines in rare moments of clarity, would choose to be other than they are.  While I can almost make the reach that borderlines have a disability, I find it very hard to go that far for sociopaths and psychopaths. I confess I may be suffering from empathy erosion when it comes to feeling compassion for these individuals who create such damage to others. 

    It's risky, I think, to feel compassion for these folks as it may leave us open and vulnerable to more harm from them. I'm not sure how we navigate that successfully.

    As I said in my earlier response, I think the legal concepts of personal responsibility and accountability remain important so that people who do harm do not feel this is without consequences, and for society to send a clear message about what happens when you cross the line it draws between right and wrong. The legal concepts are convenient and necessary even if they are hard to reconcile with science. So even if your behaviour is the result of your neurology, this is not a "get out of jail free" card. In that regard, a psychopath who hurts another person will not be able to "game the system" or "play the disability card". The consequences of a crime may still be a loss of civil liberties, for example, such as detention in a secure setting.

    However, the way we view such individuals - even psychopaths - can still be compassionate, in the same way that we view any disability. What I'm proposing is not that new, in that secure units such as Broadmoor (which is full of psychopaths who have committed horrendous crimes) are HOSPITALS rather than prisons, and as such are therapeutic environments. 

    Although your overarching topic is a serious one: why people are cruel to others, your ultimate perspective is a hopeful one: that empathy can be learned, that the empathy muscle, so to speak, can be exercised. What practical information do you hope readers take away from this book?

    You are right that my book has an optimistic message, namely, that empathy can be increased. For some people it is simply a matter of waiting for development, and gaining experience. For others it may be a matter of either education or therapy. Imaginative approaches are being taken in many fields to facilitate empathy, and I do believe in the idea that people can change – because the evidence supports this.

    KWombles's References:

    Krahn, T.,&Fenton, A. (2009). Autism, empathy and questions of moral agency. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 39(2), 145-166. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5914.2009.00402.x

    Smith, A. (2009). The empathy imbalance hypothesis of autism: A theoretical approach to cognitive and emotional empathy in autistic development. The Psychological Record, 59(3), 489-510. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

    Soderstrom, H. (2003). Psychopathy as a disorder of empathy. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 12(5), 249-252. doi:10.1007/s00787-003-0338-y

    *modified to add "conditions" for clarity; I apologize for any misinterpretation individuals might have had between a psychological condition and actual people.


    Incredibly interesting interview. Certain incites and understandings help the autism community to understand themselves. I do take exception to one point however, where the Dr. discusses that psychopaths, narcissists should be dealt with with some form of sympathy, albeit while they are held accountable for their actions. I think his association with their actions to a form of disability while it may be scientifically appropriate is legally inappropriate. The legal definition of being unable to stand trial is that you are so diseased of mind to not be able to understand that your actions are harmful.These individuals while devoid of certain brain circuitry are quite capable of understanding the results of their actions, they simply don't care who they harm in achieving their goals. This is very different than those with autism who truly may not understand parts of the social construct, but I am certain if you ask a high functioning autistic they can tell you that you are not allowed to harm other people and what that means. The reality is that there is a huge difference between psychological "crazy" and legal "crazy." People that are capable of making choices and make evil choices do to elicit sympathy and they never should.

    Mean "people that are capable of making choices and make evil choices do NOT elicit sympathy and they never should." Sorry editing error.

    I think the concept of "empathy" could be teased into two parts:
    1- Awareness-empathy, i.e awareness of other's emotions, and
    2 - Caring-empathy, i.e. caring about other people's emotions.

    Autistic people aren't aware they may be offending someone, but if they were aware, they would care.
    Psychopaths may be aware, but don't care.

    Gerhard Adam
    I don't think it's necessary to perform mental gymnastics simply to associate "responsibility" with actions.  This is very similar to the debate that typically surrounds "free will" discussions and it simply isn't relevant.

    There are two aspects of the law that need to be considered and neither one depends explicitly on the individual charged with a crime.  In the first place, society has a "right" and the means to restrain anyone that poses a threat (whether they are aware of it or not) to that society.  In the second place, the only role of "responsibility" in a court of law is to establish whether an individual is sufficiently aware to receive society's retribution.  In other words, the latter isn't intended to protect the individual charged, but primarily serves the purpose of ensuring we (i.e. society) don't feel guilty in punishing someone that doesn't know any better.

    Why this last section may sound cynical, it bears considering since an individual's awareness is not sufficient criteria to determine whether they will be restrained in some fashion, but only whether we feel it appropriate to also level punishment.  After all, we feel justified in punishing (not rehabilitating) individuals when we feel that their actions are the result of "intended" behaviors because then we can presume that the consequences were equally "intended" to result.  More importantly, we want to believe that people have such choices. 

    It can hardly be argued that psychopaths are "normal", so in effect, just by labeling them psychopaths we acknowledge that there is something fundamentally wrong in their minds that enables them to act in the manner they do. 

    In essence, the whole issue of "responsibility" (in the sense being discussed) is simply a side-bar attempt to retain the notion of "free will".  Even without "free will" there's no requirement that actions not have consequences within a social group of individuals.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Thank you; it's easy for it get muddled.
     There are several in the autism community who think autistics who break the law should not be prosecuted or in any way held accountable, and with a recent case where an autistic young man was sentenced to two years for attacking a police officer and causing him serious harm, brought a lot of attention in the online community, with what felt like most of the people who spoke out openly on it decrying the actions of the police officer rather than focusing on the need for society to be protected from individuals who cannot control their aggressive behaviors. I understand parents' fears all too well, but I also believe strongly that just as my children deserve to be safe from harm when they go out in the community, the community should be able to expect that they will not harm anyone. All of this was in my mind as I thought of this particular question of legal accountability; Baron-Cohen also refers to Gary McKinnon and Baron-Cohen's belief that jail is inappropriate for him.
    I may tend to towards overreacting when I read someone saying that neurological conditions should be mitigating circumstances to accountability because of some of what I've read. In some ways, I absolutely agree; if they don't know right from wrong, then punishment seems keenly inappropriate. I think that Baron-Cohen clarified his position so that I understand where he comes down on it. I'm just not sure I agree when we get to psychopaths. I think people are defining it differently and confusing antisocial personality disorder for psychopathy. 

    You're right on  the psychopath labeling; over at my personal blog, in the comments it got into a debate about whether it's a disability, which honestly irritated me; psychopaths do know what's wrong and what's right. They don't care: "Psychopaths know what is right or wrong, but simply don’t care. Given that legal distinctions often turn on whether crimes are committed knowingly (e.g., Model Penal Code), these results could have bearing on court decisions concerning the nature of moral knowledge – i.e. instead of strictly focusing on criminal actions carried out knowingly, we should also focus on whether such knowingly immoral and illegal actions are carried out caringly. Equally important, these results may shed light on treatment, pushing clinicians to distinguish between the sources of deficit regarding morally relevant decisions and actions." -- Cima, M., Tonnaer, F.,&Hauser, M. D. (2010). Psychopaths know right from wrong but don’t care. Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience, 5(1), 59-67. doi:10.1093/scan/nsp051

    As a society, we must take action to protect our members; accountability can take several forms, and institutionalization or secure residential settings are two options for individuals who are not competent. 

    I think that SBC's book was rich with ideas that were expansive and trying to simultaneously hold his ideas in mind, along with the criticism that various factions in the online autism community hold, was often challenging. I wanted to make sure I addressed questions I've seen raised by others, along with my own questions, while getting clarification on some points that I thought would be easier to understand with more information. 

    I hope I accomplished that. For such a slim book, I spent a lot of time with it. :) 

    “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than a sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” --MLK, Jr.
    Kim, you're really misrepresenting Neli Latson's situation and why many of us support him. The cop was originally arresting him for no reason, he was clearly being racially profiled, and according to Neli's report the cop was saying some truly vile and racist things to him. Again, when the cop was first arresting Neli, Neli had not committed any crime other than sitting on grass while being a young autistic Black man. He only became violent AFTER the cop treated him badly and he was being wrongfully arrested. FWIW, I would probably support other citizens in similar circumstances, even if they weren't autistic, although I do think autism is also relevant here because, yes, sometimes we can become violent while panicked in meltdown mode. This DOES NOT mean that other people have the right to arrest us or otherwise lock us up, though, especially because in this case the meltdown was clearly precipitated by the cop's own unlawful actions and abuse of power. I think this police officer is a far greater danger to the community than Neli, personally.

    I'm also not sure how much this situation has to do with the issue at hand, since the problem is not that Neli is incapable of knowing right from wrong at all. In fact, Neli definitely seems like he DOES know this, and he was upset when the cop wasn't respecting what Neli believed to be his constitutional rights. (Neli apparently told the cop, quite correctly, that he didn't have the right to arrest him.)

    As for Gary McKinnon, I agree that he doesn't belong in jail, but the blame for that falls squarely on ridiculous anti-terrorist laws which are apparently incapable of distinguishing between actual terrorist attempts and hacking with no malicious intentions.

    On another note, I thought psychopathy and Anti-social personality disorder were (technically) synonymous? In that case, I'm not sure how relevant the disability issue is, because anti-social personality disorder is a gerry-mandered term to describe a certain type of criminal. I'm really not comfortable discussing this as a disability issue when it was so obviously constructed by psychiatrists to further stigmatize criminal behavior. Putting something in the DSM is a very, very effective means of stigmatizing something, but that does not in and of itself make it a mental illness.

    I've followed Neli's story from the beginning, as well having offered support and awareness for his story when it first came out last year. The news reports and blog reports have not revealed all the details and many people either are unaware of or discount relevant information. 
    I'm not wading into this any more than I have; I don't have an opinion on what the right legal response was in his case given that I am aware  that I don't know all the facts. 

    And as I said, I absolutely understand parents' concerns regarding their children and law enforcement; it's vitally important that law enforcement be well-trained, but in the end, it is my job as long as I am legal guardians to my children to make sure that if they are at risk of reacting aggressively that I take precautions.

    As to mentioning it in the comments, it was relevant to the discussion of legal responsibility for criminal acts, as is McKinnon. 

    If someone knows right from wrong, then legally they can be held accountable for their actions. Two wrongs do not make a right.
    “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than a sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” --MLK, Jr.
    Gerhard Adam
    What's being misrepresented?  Even those that support him are standing on thin ice when it comes to explaining away the behavior.
    Reginald “Neli” Latson, a 19 year-old, sat in the grass outside the library and waited for it to open. Police allege that shortly after, some children purportedly were frightened and claimed there was a suspicious black male who had had a gun. A nearby school was put on lockdown, and a search ensued. Deputy Calverley then approached Latson, squeezed the front pocket of his sweatshirt and checked for a gun. No gun was found.
    So, the officer did have a reasonable basis for questioning Latson.  It wasn't simply an arbitrary case of racial profiling, since the description matched that given by the children making the report.  While these matters can be sorted out when they are in error, it doesn't help matters when they are escalated (by either party).

    This statement from the web site is simply idiotic.  This is exactly the same kind of reasoning that would've resulted in public outrage had the officer NOT questioned the individual and he would've opened fire on the nearby school.  The second amendment argument is simply stupid in this context.
    Latson had done nothing wrong and was completely within his rights to sit on the grass until the library opened, but was accosted by an officer who then proceeded to question, detain and arrest him, even after confirming he did not have a gun (and even if he did have a gun – so what? It’s called the Second Amendment).
    This silliest part of the entire report is this:
    But the most appropriate way to view these interactions (if in fact we are free people) is the other way around – if the police had just minded their own damn business no one would have been hurt.
    So, police are just so damned nosy, they should've minded their own business. 

    I realize that this particular article may not be fully representative of everything that happened, and it seems that the judge determined that the original sentence was too much and was reduced accordingly.  It is foolish to presume that a police officer investigating the possibility of an individual carrying a gun is supposed to be aware of all the possible conditions that might exist in an individual.  The police officer's primary concern is everyone's safety (including their own), so let's stop pretending that police officers are super heroes that should simply trust everyone.  I do not appreciate the way many police officers behave, so I'm certainly not making an excuse, but in the context of what Kim said, it is equal relevant to consider Latson's culpability in this.

    People should not be arbitrarily penalized or singled out for scrutiny, but in this case, it doesn't appear that any of that happened.  There was a report, and a likely individual was seen that the police wanted to question.  I certainly can't vouch for everyone's behavior on the scene, and as I said, I'm certainly not arguing that the officer did everything appropriately either.

    However, in the end, it is the police officers that we expect to be the risk-takers in such encounters, therefore it is incumbent on all of us to not escalate such confrontations by being belligerent and demanding our rights.  That doesn't mean we should allow ourselves to be abused, but equally we should attempt to defuse, not increase tensions.

    Whether Latson had the ability to do so, is something that could only have been determined after the fact.  To expect the police officer to intuit such behaviors, is simply unreasonable and irrational.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Okay, but when it became clear that Neli Latson was not, in fact, carrying a gun, that should have been the end of it. It wasn't.

    Gerhard Adam
    Except that according to the same article:
    Calverly asked Latson for his name, and Latson refused.
    Not the best way to defuse a situation.  Hindsight allows us to speculate that this should've ended the situation, but you know as well as I, that if something had happened and the officer had not tried to identify the individual there would've been no end to the outrage for police neglect.

    In our society, it simply isn't possible for the police to arbitrarily let people go if they refuse to identify themselves or cooperate.  While we can argue about whether that's the best approach and whether its even right, it is an inescapable fact of living in such a large, populated society.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Fifth amendment? Seriously, what exactly was Neli doing wrong, here? The police officer should have gone when it became clear that no law was being violated. Why did the police officer need to know Neli's name, when it was clear that Neli was not in fact committing a crime?

    In our society, it should not be possible for police to arbitrarily arrest people simply for looking a certain way, or for failing to say their name, or whatever. The only grounds for arrest should be committing a crime, and failing to respond to a police officer's questions is not a crime. Period. The police officer was clearly outside the law in making an arrest, and it scares me to hear people justify this crap.

    Gerhard Adam
    Just an example of the law:
    The "right to silence" rule may not hold true if the officer suspects the person of loitering. Laws in effect in many states generally define loitering as "wandering about from place to place without apparent business, such that the person poses a threat to public safety." Under these laws, if a police officer sees a person loitering, the officer can demand identification and an explanation of the person's activities. If the person fails to comply, the officer can arrest the person for loitering.

    A "stop and frisk" is when a police officer stops a person to question them and, for self-protection only, carries out a limited as "probable cause" to make an arrest or a "reasonable suspicion" to conduct a "stop and frisk," a person approached by the police officer has the legal right to refuse to answer questions.  Indeed, a person who has reason to believe that he or she is a potential suspect should politely decline to answer questions, at least until pat-down search for weapons (a "frisk").

    In one recent U.S. Supreme Court case, the Court ruled that running away from the police is enough of a reason for the police to stop and frisk the defendant.
    No one is suggesting that the Fifth Amendment doesn't apply, but as I said, it isn't necessarily the most prudent approach, especially if an officer may have probable cause.  If the detention is unlawful, then the courts can readily determine that.

    I fully understand why you might find that distasteful, and I would agree (in principle).  However, as a practical matter, I also expect police officers to follow up on calls with due diligence (which implicitly carries a "probable cause").  I'm no attorney, but since the officer was explicitly investigating a call, this wasn't a random or arbitrary stop.  It was in direct response to a call from the school that reported this individual.    As a result, I would suggest that this did provide the officer with "probable cause" to ask for identification.

    I can understand how on the one hand we want to be free from police scrutiny if we haven't done anything wrong, but similarly we expect police to respond properly to protect us from those that would do something wrong.  It's a tough spot to be in, and for every individual that thinks this is an improper way to handle the situation, there will be someone that can reference an experience where such a police action may have saved them (or others) from some ordeal.

    I think asking why the police officer needed to know his name is a cop-out response.  In the same way that we don't want police officers to behave as cowboys, citizens also need to recognize that they can't either.  The proper remedy is a court of law if something was done improperly or incorrectly. 

    In my view, the only reason why people are even having this discussion is because they want to cut Latson some slack because he's autistic.  I seriously doubt that people would be nearly this understanding if he was just a normal guy. 

    Mundus vult decipi
    In my case, I would actually be outraged if this was "just a normal guy." Police trampling on people's rights is bad. But yes, I do think the fact that he is autistic does warrant particular consideration--in this particular case. In other cases, neurotype might not be relevant. It depends on the precise situation.

    While I agree that it might have been the "best" course for Neli to give the police officer his name, that does not make the arrest in any sense justified. Calling Neli Latson a "loiterer" doesn't change that--by that definition, probably most of the population is guilty of loitering at one point or another and needs to be arrested. I don't think much of "loitering" as a crime.

    I think asking why the police officer needed to know his name is a cop-out response. In the same way that we don't want police officers to behave as cowboys, citizens also need to recognize that they can't either

    And I think this is a cop-out response. Cops shouldn't need to concern themselves with law-abiding citizens who are not requesting their help.

    And how was Neli acting like a cowboy, BTW? For simply not wanting to talk to a police officer? Again, people have that right and there are a lot of reasons why he might have done that. None of this warranted an arrest.

    To clarify: are you arguing that the cop was justified in arresting Neli Latson when he first attempted to make the arrest? And if so, what crime was Neli guilty of?

    And I am speaking, BTW, as an autistic person who likely would have reacted similarly to Neli Latson had I been in a similar situation--not that it's very likely, as I am a white woman.

    Virginia's gun laws would also seem relevant here. If indeed the state does allow for concealed carry in the location where Neli was, then there wasn't an issue of a crime in the first place, it would seem to me.

    Gerhard Adam
    If indeed the state does allow for concealed carry in the location where Neli was, then there wasn't an issue of a crime in the first place, it would seem to me.
    Actually that would still have been a crime.  Concealed carry isn't arbitrary but requires that you have a certificate or license to carry.  Therefore you must be prepared to identify yourself and show the appropriate documentation.  You can be assured that a concealed weapon isn't going to be ignored simply on your word.

    An additional problem is that the call identified the individual as being in possession of a gun.  At that point it is no longer concealed, but it is brandishing which isn't likely to be tolerated at a school.  Certainly the report was in error, since he didn't possess a gun, but nevertheless, there is nothing in the law that allows an individual to be armed, ignore law enforcement, and then fight with law enforcement when the officer is approaching you with probable cause because of a report.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard Adam
    I should clarify something in my position, however.  I don't find fault in the arrest and the problems that occurred,  Where I would have a problem is if Latson was denied due process after his arrest, and I definitely disagree with the premise of sentencing him to 10 years in prison.

    While I understand that most of the sentence has been reduced, and there seem to be indications that there is something associated with treatment involved.  I'm also not convinced that any of that is appropriate or necessary. 

    Basically my point is that the officer couldn't have known that Latson was autistic, so while the events may have been unfortunate, there was no malicious intent (on either side).  However, once the autistic condition was known, then the law should've taken a different view on the appropriateness of the sentence.  Treating Latson as a criminal (for sentencing) makes no sense, so in that respect there is certainly much that might be questioned. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard Adam
    I do think the fact that he is autistic does warrant particular consideration--in this particular case.
    Irrelevant, since there was no way for the officer to know this.
    Calling Neli Latson a "loiterer" doesn't change that--by that definition, probably most of the population is guilty of loitering at one point or another and needs to be arrested. I don't think much of "loitering" as a crime.
    Doesn't matter what you think of it, if it is the law.  Until that changes, you can't argue for differential enforcement based on what you think are exceptional cases.
    Cops shouldn't need to concern themselves with law-abiding citizens who are not requesting their help.
    You're failing to grasp that it was "law-abiding citizens" that called in the report and wanted the individual investigated.  The officer was doing precisely what he was paid to do.  It was Latson's response that escalated the situation and autism is no excuse if the officer is uninformed about it.
    Again, people have that right and there are a lot of reasons why he might have done that. None of this warranted an arrest.
    Again ... read the law, since that right is NOT absolute.  Given the fact that a call was made about Latson, then the officer had a basis for questioning him.  As I said, we're not talking about a random stop or arbitrary interrogation.

    Since the officer could not know about the autism, then you cannot consider it was a mitigating factor in the officer's actions.  Therefore Latson could just as easily have been an ex-con, a drug dealer, a sex offender, etc.  Any of these things are possible, and could not have been known in advance.  I suspect that if it were any of the others, most people wouldn't be quite so understanding about Latson's response.  Bear in mind, that Latson didn't just leave, but assaulted the officer in an attempt to defend himself.  Once again, this is not the most prudent of actions and would definitely have escalated this in the mind of the officer (remember, he has no way of knowing this individual is autistic).
    ...the cop was justified in arresting Neli Latson when he first attempted to make the arrest? And if so, what crime was Neli guilty of?
    As I already indicated, this was in response to a concerned call, so the officer was certainly justified (within the context of the law) to stop and frisk as well as determine Latson's identity.  If Latson didn't cooperate, it was within the officer's right to arrest him.  Once again, this was not some random encounter, it was an officer responding to an explicit call expressing concern about an individual observed outside the school. 

    As for guilt, that is NOT a requirement for an arrest.  That is determined by a court of law.  An officer only needs probable cause to suspect that an individual can be arrested pending further investigation.  Based on the law (whether you agree with it or not), the officer can invoke the crime of "loitering" if he feels that there is a need to remove an individual that is simply "hanging around" without identification.

    You may feel it's unjustified and you can certainly pursue some remedy through your representatives, but as long as it is a law, then there's not much point in splitting hairs over the officer's authority.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard Adam
    We certainly do not fault the officer for investigating what he erroneously believed to be a suspicious man with a gun. In actuality, however, there was no gun, and the defendant was waiting for the library to open. Ironically, for Reginald, a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome, the quiet library he was waiting to gain entrance to was serving as a place of refuge.  We do not fault the officer for not knowing about Reginald’s autism (Asperger’s) disability, and how that core disability would be expected to impact and degrade (1) Reginald’s ability to quickly process instructions and commands, (2) Reginald’s ability to properly understand and “read” social cues and situations, and (3) Reginald’s reaction to physical contact.[3] Unfortunately, however, between the officer’s mistaken beliefs and perceptions and Reginald’s erroneous social perceptions and his hypersensitive reaction to physical contact, a formula for disaster arose—a formula that then spiraled out of control to its inevitable conclusion.  What happened here is every police officer’s worst nightmare.  For parents of children with autism, it is their worst nightmare as well.

    From a letter by Autism Speaks Federal Appeals Project

    This article should give everyone pause and make people realize this is not a simple issue and certainly warrants more than knee-jerk reactions and hype.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard Adam wrote:

    "So, the officer did have a reasonable basis for questioning Latson. It wasn't simply an arbitrary case of racial profiling, since the description matched that given by the children making the report. While these matters can be sorted out when they are in error, it doesn't help matters when they are escalated (by either party)."

    I live in a very dodgy area, and I often have reason to call the police about things that I've witnessed. I know from years of experience, because cops are busy and perhaps I am not percieved as a credible person, I often have to argue why the cops should attend, but if I mention that the people I have observed are black, my call appears to suddenly gain a higher priority, just like magic. This is de facto racial profiling, and I suspect that this type of thing happened in the case that you have been discussing. It appears that the black man did nothing at all to justify police attending, except being black and male.

    Gerhard Adam
    If you want to make a case that this was an issue about racism, then go for it, but the point of the discussion here is autism.   As I mentioned before, the autism wasn't known to the officer and consequently could not have been a factor in eliciting the behavior and events that occurred.
    It appears that the black man did nothing at all to justify police attending, except being black and male.
    Well, it may have started with nothing, but it certainly didn't end that way, so this wasn't an entirely innocent episode either.  You may well be justified in claiming some element of racism, and perhaps the officer was wrong to attempt an arrest.  I simply don't have all the information and don't know.  What I do know, is that when you violently assault an officer, you aren't exactly attempting to defuse the tensions either.  Whether Latson felt justified or not, it will raise controversy.  Just to reiterate though, the one thing that is NOT relevant is his autism, since that wasn't known to anyone present at the time.
    Mundus vult decipi
    I honestly can't get further involved with this because it is highly upsetting to me. I just wanted to say that many autistic people consider that Washington Post article an atrocity, not something which sheds particular light on the situation. Many of us aren't big Autism Speaks fans, either.

    I am, however, glad to hear that Neli's sentence has been reduced. IMO he never should have been jailed, arrested or indicted in the first place, but alas.

    I still have yet to hear the justifiers of this incidence clearly state what crime Neli was being accused of when the officer first was attempting to arrest him. Because the last I checked, police officers need a reason to arrest someone. Was it the charge that he was carrying a gun? With no evidence except for a single phone call? I don't want to live in a country where that can get someone arrested.

    Gerhard Adam
    Because the last I checked, police officers need a reason to arrest someone.
    ... and a reason was provided, but you simply don't want to accept it.  I suspect you would not be this concerned about police if the individual proved to be dangerous, or a drug dealer or something more serious.  However, according to you, unless a police officer actually witnesses a crime occurring, then they should simply let people go on about their business regardless of what anyone else reports.
    With no evidence except for a single phone call? I don't want to live in a country where that can get someone arrested.
    Now you're exaggerating.  Perhaps you need to review the events again.  Latson failed to identify himself and when the officer tried to arrest him, he fought with and injured the officer.  At this point, he did leave which is why he was arrested later after officers tracked him down.  Without the knowledge that Latson was autistic, his behavior would've been construed as violently criminal. 

    I personally don't understand why autism is even being discussed with respect to the police encounter.  Why would autistic people be upset?   The autism wasn't known at the time of the incident, so it wasn't a factor in the officer's behavior, nor the police response. 

    This is simply a response from people that have the benefit of hindsight and want to read more into events than was originally there. 

    Mundus vult decipi
    Oh, nonsense. I never said that police officers had to actually witness a crime occurring to make an arrest, but they do need to have reasonable grounds for suspicion. From what I know of the incident, this was not the case. And again, he did not fight with the officer until AFTER the officer was attempting to arrest him. What was the grounds for the this arrest originally? A phone call and not saying his name?

    As an autistic person I struggle daily to make myself understood in a world which often considers me lesser just for being the way that I am. Why would I be upset that another autistic person was treated horribly because society failed to meet his needs? Jeez, I have no idea on this one.

    Gerhard Adam
    I've provided you the information that indicates that an officer CAN arrest you on the charge of loitering if you have no explanation for what you're doing and refuse to identify yourself.  Like it or not, that can be a "crime".  Whether you agree with it or not, is largely academic.

    Once again, you're trying to make this about autism, but since the officer didn't know, then it is irrelevant.
    Why would I be upset that another autistic person was treated horribly because society failed to meet his needs?
    What needs?  The officer didn't know he was autistic, so there was no reason to believe that a different approach was necessary.

    Quite frankly, I don't understand your point about being treated "lesser" since that didn't occur.  The poster that suggested a racist motive has much more reason to believe that than to bring up the autism angle.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Neli Latson's needs were not met. Even if this is because the officer did not know he was autistic, his needs still weren't met and he was put in a highly uncomfortable situation unnecessarily (IMO). Neli didn't stop being autistic just because the officer didn't know. I would argue that the assumption that everyone is neurotypical and will respond in neurotypical ways is ableism, even if it is unintentional. If Neli had been deaf and responded similarly, there would be a similar issue at hand. The assumption that everyone is neurotypical and non-disabled is damaging, and the officer perpetuated harm even if it was not the intention.

    I agree that racism is highly relevant here, but we can't discount Neli being autistic, either. Both are germane to the situation at hand. According to Neli, the officer said racist things to him during the encounter. That is a further mitigating factor in the situation, IMO.

    Gerhard Adam
    According to Neli, the officer said racist things to him during the encounter. That is a further mitigating factor in the situation, IMO.
    Actually it is more problematic, because it suggests that Latson responded out of anger more than as a consequence of his autism.
    I would argue that the assumption that everyone is neurotypical and will respond in neurotypical ways is ableism, even if it is unintentional.
    So you now want to hold people responsible for unintentional actions made against individuals with unknown conditions.  I'd love to hear how you intend to achieve that.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Quite simply, I want people to stop assuming that everyone they encounter is neurotypical and non-disabled. It's actually very simple.

    What you call "his autism" and "his emotions" are intertwined.

    Also, I don't know what you mean about "holding the officer responsible." I am not acting as his judge and jury, I am merely stating that his actions were ableist and contributed to making society inaccessible for a person with a disability. I would like to see society made more accessible for people with disabilities.

    I am pro-disability rights, and disability rights recognizes that it's possible to contribute to the oppression of a person with a disability without necessarily intending to. The pre-ADA people who built buildings that were inaccessible to people who use wheelchairs may not have been intending to exclude people with disabilities, but they did. They were working from the false assumption that everyone was able-bodied, and that is highly problematic.

    Gerhard Adam
    I'll respond at the bottom of the list.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard Adam
    My primary point was that we don't really care about responsibility or anything like that.  The only reason that discussion occurs, is because we want to know whether we can assign blame for whatever occurred.   In other words, it doesn't matter whether being a psychopath is a disability or not.  Can we necessarily "blame" them for their behavior?  Perhaps, perhaps not.  In the end, the only question that matters is whether they're culpable for their actions, and the only response we need to make is how we intend to prevent it for the future.

    I know people will howl (sorry, no pun intended) at this example (because they want to be offended), but I don't blame the dog that has rabies for having rabies, but nevertheless I will put him down. 

    NOTE:  For all those that want to be offended and get indignant ... no, I was not comparing human beings with (or without) disabilities to dogs, nor did I suggest that they be put down.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard, point taken (although I think there are individuals who do care about responsibility and accountability, and this is where the confusion arises--in the conflict between believing in responsibility in the midst of a society that wants to find a condition or a person to blame), and one I agree with; even if they can't be held culpable, if they did it, the question becomes how to protect others from future harm by these individuals.
    Another thing I think would be helpful is if people realized that when they hear about a crime and read news reports, they don't know all the facts and have no way of checking whether the news coverage is accurate; because of this, they ought to be able to back off from making a judgment about the case. If it isn't personally relevant to one's daily life, then there's no need to form a conclusion about the guilt or appropriate consequence. Look at me, pie-in-the-sky dreaming!

    “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than a sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” --MLK, Jr.
    Gerhard Adam
    True enough.  After all, the law is supposed to be evidence-based too :)
    Mundus vult decipi
    It is official - Gerhard wants to shoot autistic babies. My god! ;)
    Gerhard Adam
    You had to start ... :)
    Mundus vult decipi
    That will be our new tagline.  "join the revolution" is so vanilla!
    SBH talks here as though he knows autistic people better than we know ourselves, because we are supposedly not so 'self aware' as he is. Yeah, right. This interview will hardly improve our opinion of him.

    This, so much. SBC's claim that the reason why we don't realize that we lack empathy is because we're autistic, and thus unaware, is really condescending and wrong. The autistic people I know, myself included, have put a great deal of thought and reflection into our evaluations of his "theories." Many of us have read some of his papers and books, scrutinized his all-important AQ/SQ/EQ tests, etc. We find his "science" doesn't match our reality, and in particular we find his definition of empathy to be quite incoherent. (This interview, BTW, seemed to be as incoherent as ever with regards to defining empathy.)

    Aspergers people are often more self-aware than non-autistics, but it looks like to SBC having a label means you can be studied but not do the studying. A scary, segregationist attitude.

    This is an AWESOME blog and interview - many thanks!

    I do think it's possible to separate cognitive from affective empathy - especially if we understand the idea of empathy to mean something like "feeling WITH another person." Even in the most basic sense, I can feel FOR a baseball fan whose team just lost - but because I don't root for baseball, teams, I don't feel WITH that person. The fact that I don't really care whether or not the team lost however, doesn't instill in me a desire to jeer at a baseball fan - and I'm perfectly capable of behaving appropriately and looking downcast at a baseball loss despite my lack of affective connection to the situation.

    A person with autism (who is of normal intelligence) can do the same, even if he or she doesn't understand why it's the "right" thing to do; the question isn't "can a person with autism act apprpriately," but "has he or she been taught and asked to do so?" This goes back, IMO, to your (Kim's) separate blog about your son Bobby and the issue of lowered expectations.

    It's also, of course, possible to feel WITH another person, even without understanding the cause of that person's joy or pain. People with and without autism feel concern when another person cries or laughs when another person laughs, even with no concept of what the heck is going on!

    I don't know that I've ever met a psychopath, but from what I understand, being a psychopath would put you into the "I understand but don't feel WITH you" group. What I don't understand about psychopathy, however, is why not feeling WITH another person would lead to sadistic actions. I assume that's a whole different set of issues, and that that set of issues - the ungovernable impetus to do harm to others - is what sets a psychopath apart from a person with autism or any other disorder.

    IS the unstoppable urge to harm another person part of psychopathy in the way that the unstoppable urge to smoke is part of addiction to cigs? Or do psychopaths have a choice? If there is no choice - if the psychopath cannot stop himself from doing harm - then I understand the connection to the rabies example. If the psychopath CAN stop himself but chooses not to, that's obviously the definition of evil.


    Which of the 9 Borderline Personality Disorder traits refer to a lack or impairment of empathy?

    1.Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment. Note: Do not include suicidal or self-injuring behavior covered in Criterion 5
    2.A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation.
    3.Identity disturbance: markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self.
    4.Impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g., promiscuous sex, eating disorders, binge eating, substance abuse, reckless driving). Note: Do not include suicidal or self-injuring behavior covered in Criterion 5
    5.Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, threats or self-injuring behavior such as cutting, interfering with the healing of scars (excoriation) or picking at oneself.
    6.Affective instability due to a marked reactivity of mood (e.g., intense episodic dysphoria, irritability or anxiety usually lasting a few hours and only rarely more than a few days).
    7.Chronic feelings of emptiness
    8.Inappropriate anger or difficulty controlling anger (e.g., frequent displays of temper, constant anger, recurrent physical fights).
    9.Transient, stress-related paranoid ideation, delusions or severe dissociative symptoms

    Why didn't the author mention Antisocial personality disorder??? Please read DSM value below!

    A) There is a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others occurring for as long as either childhood, or in the case of many who are influenced by environmental factors, around age 15, as indicated by three or more of the following:
    1.failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest;
    2.deception, as indicated by repeatedly lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure;
    3.impulsiveness or failure to plan ahead;
    4.irritability and aggression, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults;
    5.reckless disregard for safety of self or others;
    6.consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations;
    7.lack of remorse, as indicated by indifference to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another;
    B) The individual is at least 18 years of age.
    C) There is evidence of conduct disorder with onset before age 15 years.
    D) The occurrence of antisocial behavior is not exclusively during the course of schizophrenia or a manic episode.

    He does in the book; he equates psychopaths with antisocial personality disorder. They're not quite the same thing, but psychopathy has not made it into the DSM and will not in the fifth edition, either.
    And to be fair; the DSM doesn't mention a lack of empathy for autism, either.

    What BC is doing is recasting all of these disorders as empathy disorders, postulating that this is the core deficit in each in different ways.
    “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than a sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” --MLK, Jr.
    So, a sadistic psychopath, who manipulates people, who feels pleasure from causing pain, who's an expert at psychological torture, he also lacks theory of mind or what?

    See, he derives "lack of empathy" for the autistic based on the tests that psychopaths pass with flying colours. Whereas he derives psychopath's "lack of empathy" from how psychopaths don't care about anyone besides themselves, with very good knowledge of how other people feel (as required for their manipulation)

    Cohen is merely a typical public pseudoscientist, making up bullshit that is a good sell and getting air time on tv.

    I agree, it's a mess of a theory.

    I have experience with psychopaths, I would call them mind blind in a way that autistics (or rather myself) aren't. Psychopaths can't tell the difference between people so have no awareness of cause and effect, they're effective at manipulation through laborious trial and error. Autistics understand by patterning so it's easy to predict people's future actions once you know them. But psychopaths appear not to lack the oxytocin empathy (I don't know which version SBC calls this, but if you're autistic and take oxytocin you'll understand instantly).

    I think this subject will only be understood once everyone has subjective experience of each other's point of view.

    I think it is more about lacks of different subsystems. Autistic have trouble seeing emotions of others (blind to the signal), and understanding other people's minds as different from their own. This conflation of other people with themselves makes autistic sort of hyper-empathic, even if blind about the differences between themselves and others. They expect the 'treat others how you want them to treat you' to work. This does not work very well in real world.

    Psychopaths, on other hand, are very effective at manipulating others, which requires prediction of other's actions, and as far as mental models go, psychopaths do have a good mental model if we are to judge it objectively - *it works* extremely well. The psychopaths, however, do not self identify with you, do not give a fuck about you, and do not feel your pain even though they can see it very well.

    That's the folk wisdom but it misses the finer points. It's hard to explain psychopathic mindblindness to non-autistics, because normals largely suffer from the same lack of insight, they just don't need it. Psychopaths pretty much keep trying new tricks until one works, then they start again. There is no learning process. Note they are only successful at manipulating other crazy people ("you can't con an honest man" holds true).

    Filing all these differences under 'types of empathy', as SBC is inclined to do, really smears over any useful insights. Then he explicitly equates empathy with ToM, yet ToM is what lets normal people have 'empathy erosion' in genocides. Whole theory is a mess.

    Well I think psychopaths can con average people. Someone should do a study, psychopaths vs normal people, take a bunch of normal people, take a dozen psychopaths, make a contest between psychopaths who can con the most (so that psychos are motivated). As for tricks, well how do psychopath make tricks if there's no learning? Got to invent them then. Also, the folk wisdom can actually be superior to research in such areas which are not hard science but just opinions of 'scientists', with a variety of bias factors - for example, this particular guy, he obviously benefits from media attention in some way - and outrageous claims, controversial claims, the claims that seem false (and may well be false) coming from a scientist get much more news coverage than claims which confirms the things we know.

    Many researchers see psychopathy as an adaptation not as disorder (and so do psychopaths themselves). Sociopathic traits are common among top executives and politicians. Blindness, in any form, is a handicap.
    Autism however, except for high functioning, is not very good in real world, and even on high functioning range / mild (Asperger's) all the autistic traits are a handicap not advantage. The advantage is in the ability to create mental models of non-human phenomena - mechanics, computing, etc - and even there it may well be the case that it is provoked by early rejection by the society or decrease in enjoyment from social interaction, leading them to lifestyle conductive to study and practice of such skills.

    Furthermore, the 'sadistic psychopaths' could not exist if psychopaths were blind to emotions of others. Sadistic psychopath is a person who passes all the criteria for psychopathy, but is additionally a sadist.

    Furthermore the average people are not empathic moral knights in shining armour either. Numerous hard science studies - not opinions, but actual studies like Milgram experiment and Stanford Prison Experiment have shown that the empathy to strangers is rather minor factor in the decision making in majority of people.

    As I said, I really don't know how to explain it to someone who doesn't model people in multiple dimensions; it would be like a flatlander trying to comprehend football. Psychopathic mindblindness may be no different to general non-autistic failure to see patterns, but the difference is it's a skill psychopaths appear to really need, that they lack. They can't tell the difference between manipulable and unmanipulable people, for example. Also, many times I've seen a psychopath give commands to someone they control, expecting blind obedience, when the very nature of controlling a person implies you're playing a role in a storyline in their head. You can't deviate far from the storyline and expect to still control the person: e.g. if they think you're a nice guy you can't turn nasty with strong results. The storyline itself must be molded, because that's how crazy, manipulable people see the world: through stories rather than a direct, autistic-style connection. I've known no psychopaths who instinctively understood this, or even who changed their methods after I explained it, probably because they're fundamentally flatlanders with unusual motivations.

    Well, it's not enough to state that psychopaths are blind about this or that... you need to also show that typical people are less blind. How well you know that people you're speaking of are psychopaths, in first place?

    As personal experience from right now - a few days ago some people at some government office, whom i see rather frequently, asked me to come and fill some form which i'm a: not required to fill, b: and to fill it screws me up in a big way. It also saves their time a little I think. Those people seem to honestly expect me to fill it, even though it's a: waste of my time, b: screws me over in a huge way, and c: no reason whatsoever to fill it other than them asking. Are they psychopaths or something? No way, unless you start labelling half of population as psychopaths. What would psychopaths do in their place? The psychopaths would recognize that I have no reason whatsoever to fill this form, and at least try to make the reason - e.g. to intimidate.

    i.e. to clarify, my point is that i'm often seeing 'normal' people try to do things that psychopaths do, but totally unsuccessfully due to what looks like even worse mental models and even bigger blindness. Other example, pick up a girls tips for males, and general locker-room talks between males. In this I see normals wanting to do what psychopaths do, in a psychopathic way (no empathy, no putting yourself into other's shoes, female's just an object) but failing horribly to do it due to some utter and complete blindness and lack of any mental model.

    you're going to have to trust me on this. i'm a 33 year old autistic tripping on acid and experiencing a singularity - i can see everything...

    psychopaths use NO mental models, at least none different than the rest of you. they're just really needy. that need means they can let go of the consensus storyline that normals cling to. they beat normals because they can get closer to reality. however, i promise you they aren't perceiving or modelling in a different way, they are simply seeing more because they can let go of more beliefs. it leaves them in a rather unfortunate position, not beholden to any false gods yet godless themselves

    I generally respect the work of Dr. Baron-Cohen, however he errs in his categorization of "Borderlines" as having no empathy. I am the medical director of a unit dedicated to the treatment of adolescents with Borderline PD. Whereas it is true that they often display a marked difficulty in seeing things from another person's perspective, particularly when they are in intense emotional states (and as a matter of fact don't we all when we are very upset?), I have found Borderline patients to be particularly empathic, almost to a fault.

    I am quite curious as to how Dr. Baron-Cohen has made his determination.

    Blaise Aguirre, MD
    Adolescent DBT Program
    McLean Hospital
    Belmont, MA

    I'm so glad somebody else has raised this point. People who suffer from BPD often have difficulty believing or trusting that those close to them will not abandon them in some way. In that sense, when in emotional distress, they can find it difficult to see things from another's perspective when that person is trying to convey positive feelings about them. Usually because of past trauma, those with BPD find it difficult to believe other people care for them, even when they clearly do.

    Baron-Cohen's book shows what seems to be a lack of experience with a variety and large number of people with BPD. I would also be interested to know how exactly he came to the conclusion that all Borderline's have 'zero-negative' empathy. Because to constantly state that they do (as he has been in all his media appearences of late) is irresponsible and wrong without extensive Borderline-specific research. In my experience, I agree that in fact people with BPD can be empathic to a fault.

    I'm also a bit dismayed by what appears to be a fairly hostile attitude from Kim here concerning Borderlines. Do you know anything in detail about this disorder? Your comments allude that you do not.To lump them in with psychopaths and throw around comments about them 'not caring' about hurting others is just wrong.

    The stigma attached to BPD already makes it difficult enough for those suffering to come forward and get the treatment they need. Poorly researched opinions that are widely circulated don't make it any easier.
    It doesn't take long when reading a person's comments about BPD to see if they are significantly misinformed and poorly researched, and I believe I've seen that here.

    To anyone who has BPD and is distressed when reading things like this - don't be. There are people out there with accurate information who understand your disorder thouroghly enough not to put you into one extremely narrow pigeon hole.


    By the way, I have received successful treatment for BPD and spend a lot of my time helping others with BPD. These comments aren't just one of my 'rare moments of clarity'.

    Gerhard Adam
    The pre-ADA people who built buildings that were inaccessible to people who use wheelchairs may not have been intending to exclude people with disabilities, but they did. They were working from the false assumption that everyone was able-bodied, and that is highly problematic.
    This is a huge difference in seeing that an individual has a disability versus a disability that isn't readily presented.  That's all well and good to argue that the world needs to stop assuming that all individuals are "normal", but should we proceed from the premise that they aren't?  If so, then what specific actions should be involved to accommodate every possible manifestation of conditions?

    What about conditions that haven't been diagnosed?  Obviously when a condition is known then appropriate actions can occur.  However, are we to expect that law enforcement (as well as every other citizen) is to simply assume that everyone they encounter has some disability so it is up to them to try and figure out what it is so that they can act appropriately?

    If an individual is belligerent, I don't know if it is a result of going into insulin shock, or a schizophrenic that is off their meds (or even undiagnosed), or simply someone being a jerk.  This becomes especially important when decisions may have to be made quickly.  
    Also, I don't know what you mean about "holding the officer responsible." I am not acting as his judge and jury, I am merely stating that his actions were ableist and contributed to making society inaccessible for a person with a disability.
    Of course you're holding him responsible.  If you weren't, then what's the point in your comments?  If his actions were "ableist", are you suggesting that he's not responsible for that?  If so, then what does that even mean?  Should the office be entitled to compensation (i.e. suing Latson) for the losses he experienced (i.e. job loss and required surgery) as a result of this incident?  After all, if he's not responsible, then what would be the basis in withholding compensation? 
    I am pro-disability rights, and disability rights recognizes that it's possible to contribute to the oppression of a person with a disability without necessarily intending to.
    How can you separate "rights" from "intentions"?  You can't unintentionally deprive someone of their rights.  Rights are established by law, so if you deprive someone of them, then you are breaking the law.  If the law doesn't recognize it, then it's not a right.  More importantly, you need to demonstrate what "oppression" took place.

    On the one hand, people don't want disabilities singled out for special treatment and then when they're treated normally they complain that they weren't treated specially. 

    Medical services has long recognized that you can't assume that everyone is normal, but they also recognize that medical personnel aren't mind-readers, so that's why Medic-Alert tags exist.  It is assumed that special conditions will be mentioned by the patient or be documented by such tags, precisely so that medical personnel aren't held hostage to the lack of information. 

    Just to illustrate the point with a dramatic example.   How would you describe or handle the circumstances surrounding the McDonald's "Massacre" in San Ysidro on July 18, 1984.  Now before you argue that this is extreme and an unfair example, consider the point here.

    In this case, we have an individual that is clearly mentally deficient in some capacity, yet what could possibly have been done?  My point here, is that this individual wasn't just arbitrarily "evil", but was suffering from some disorder that gave rise to this tragedy (and no, I'm not suggesting that Latson is in the same category).  In short, this individual was also "disabled".  So what criteria should be applied? 

    What seems to be missing from this discussion is the consideration that disability is not a legitimate excuse for violence.  That's where the problem stems from.  If there had not been a violent outburst from Latson, then there would be no discussion (except to consider whether law enforcement acted appropriately).  If a violent outburst is excusable because of disability, then what are the limits to when it wouldn't be tolerated?

    Remember to argue that the violence is excusable because of Latson's autism, means that his response is uncontrollable.   If that is true, then what does that mean for the safety of others that also might inadvertently interact with him and not know his condition.  If the violence is controllable, then autism can't be the excuse, because that means he acted with full knowledge that he had a choice in his response. 

    Mundus vult decipi
    There seems to be some confusion telling "empathy" apart from "compassion" and I have no idea why that should be. I'm genuinely worried by that. Psychopaths aren't even the "worst" people, those would be sadists. A psychopath just honestly doesn't care what happens to you. For a sadist, what happens to you *is* the fun. Now that is evil.

    I like the hint that Baron-Cohen has realised that Jesus was autistic.

    I’ve read SB-C’s Male and Female – the Essential Difference.  But I don’t know if I’ll be getting round to read this one.  I find with age that my ability to read for long stretches is much reduced.

    But there are so many threads on even this one article!
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    this is just stupid. this guy's whole reputation is built on lies. he is NOT an expert on your children. most parents of autistic kids aren't even aware he exists, thank God. may karma come 'round and bite him in the ass.

    Larry Arnold
    I despair of Simon Baron Cohen, he needs to turn around and study himself once in a while to see what he is becoming. I have long since learned to disregard much of what passes for research at his unit, he seems nowadays to be more of a media star these days, scarcely does any media reference to autism pass without a comment by or interview with him. Quite simply a lot of what he says in that interview is erroneous, we assume it must be true by dint of the old fallacy of believing his authority since I do not think he is aware in his argument of what other researchers are saying, only what his team has produced.

    I don't know how much longer he will be able to feign innocence from the social and cultural consequence of what he has been writing but whatever it is it's not rocket science is it?

    Controversy sells books.

    Incidentally Gerhard, I think there is a lot more to the Latson case than meets the eye, there is the spectre of institutional racism with the cops there and ignorant and heavy handed policing. Not all encounters with violent people (and I am making no suppositions that Latson is or was a violent person) end in violence. Don't believe all you read in the media.

    For the record when I was much younger, I was the occasion for a report being made of an armed guy wandering around campus. The first I heard of it was when I was curious to know, after I had just crossed over to a road why so many police cars were stopping there. It turned out to be an armed response squad and I was the one they were looking for! Fortunately for me they soon discovered that a flute is not the same as the barrel of a gun, once they had learned there mistake they left me to continue on my way. I wonder if it would have been different had I been black?
    Without comparing the autistic brain and the psychopathic brain, side by side, in empirically valid and reliable studies, we will never really know whether there is a structural difference. Psychopathic behavior may be entirely environmentally determined given a certain brain structure which may be similar to that of a person on the autism spectrum.

    The subjective difference in perception of the world between autistics and psychopaths is reported to be as great as the difference between either and 'normals'. I'm not sure how that could happen without corresponding structural differences.

    Just referring to the many sources saying that alexithymia, lack of mirror neurons, lack of response to visual images of violence, lack of ability to interpret facial expressions as fearful, amygdala "differences" etc.

    There are a lot of interesting similarities and differences. Psychopathic thinking is very much like normal people's, on the same 'level' if you like, but perhaps with different motives. Autistics have unregulated growth of neural connections in youth, which is probably the related anatomical factor.